Seeing Thanksgiving as a Sanctuary in Time

As we prepare to gather in our homes for Thanksgiving, I have heard from several friends who are filled with anxiety about their time with family members who hold a different version of what is best for our country.

This year, the holiday stress is not just about family dysfunction and old hurts. The recent election has intensified many of our family dynamics with what feel like dire consequences.

We have all been reminded about ways to engage in respectful dialogue with people whose ideas and opinions are different. We also have heard encouragement to engage in conversation with those who made political choices different from our own so that we may learn to understand them.

The reality is that it takes a great deal of energy to self-regulate and to cope with our worries. The combination of outrage, confusion and angst does not bode well for civil discourse and often ends in a fight.

What if we approached this Thanksgiving with a little more self-care and focus on gratitude, which is what the holiday is ultimately about? It does not have to be about giving up the fight for what we believe in, but about creating a sanctuary in time. Think of it as Shabbat, or an intentional turning away from the world in order to turn inward.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described Shabbat as “a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.”

I have always thought of the word sanctuary in relation to the synagogue, where kids noisily run in and out while older congregants try to slow them down with cheek pinches and pats on the head.

The synagogue’s sanctuary is a space that fills with music and singing, shared words of gratitude and grief, and a momentary waving away of loneliness. It is a safe space, but it takes effort and intention to keep it that way.

That effort becomes more apparent in times of uncertainty and fear, as political passions intensify and people feel morally obligated to express their distress.

We do not have much immediate control over the state of our government affairs, but we do have some control over the tone we set in our homes. By setting an intention to create a temporary sanctuary in our home for the holidays, we could put aside our worst version of the world.

Parker Palmer, a Quaker educator, articulates the necessity for sanctuaries in our lives, where we can find space to regain our bearings, reclaim our souls and heal our wounds so that we can return to the task of healing of the world. “It’s not merely about finding shelter from the storm,” he says. “It’s about spiritual survival.”

Personally, I like the idea of family projects as ways to build common ground. I remember one year my mother-in-law took the idea of a family project to a whole new level when she put all her guests to work splitting and stacking wood in Vermont for local families that needed help. We spent the day in the cold, cracking jokes and carrying one another’s loads. No one complained.

One of the benefits of family projects is that we rally around values that remind us about our shared responsibilities and help us channel our energies by creating some good for its own sake. Working together often exposes clumsiness and presents ample opportunity to laugh at ourselves, and we can all use a little more laughter.

Finally, please offer an invite and a sense of belonging to friends who may not have family to be with. The holidays have a cruel way of highlighting loneliness, but we can turn it into an occasion to reconnect with friends.

May we all come home to a sanctuary in time, to heal, to laugh and to go back out into the world with renewed strength to deal with reality and fight the good fight.

Originally printed by Atlanta Jewish Times.

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